“Children are resilient,” is a phrase we often hear after a public tragedy. We hear it from mental health experts being interviewed by reporters. We hear it from reporters as they give tips to parents about caring for their children. We hear it from members of the public as they reflect on their own children’s responses to unthinkable situations. It is not true.
The truth is that children are VULNERABLE. Their minds are not fully developed. They are taking in the world around them, good and bad. They are being shaped by the things they see, hear, and experience. What children experience and the support they receive has a direct impact on their health now and as they grow into adults (CDC).
The truth is that children CAN be resilient. But, they are not resilient in a vacuum. There are many factors that bolster resilience in children. Though these factors do not guarantee that children will be resilient, they do heighten the likelihood that children will be able to absorb difficulties and move forward in a healthy way.
The truth is that children who have one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult are more likely to be resilient (Harvard, 2015). There is a rich body of work over the past twenty years that supports this. This is the top factor that bolsters resilience in children, buffering against the impact of toxic stress on children’s development.
With the truth in mind, how do we comfort children and help them feel safe after a public tragedy? How do we strengthen their resilience to its effects? First, they need our time and attention. If you have children in your home, dedicate special time with them to play or share a fun activity. Let them have a choice about what you do together.
Spend time with children on their terms, not just your terms. This boosts their self-confidence. Quite often, children will share openly with us about their feelings during these interactions. Also, when we are spending time with our children and giving them our undivided attention, we will see opportunities to encourage and reassure them.
Second, turn off the television and 24-hour reporting of the public tragedy. This is not to be mistaken as “hiding” the truth from your children. Children need to know the truth and it is best if they hear it from a caring adult with whom they have an ongoing relationship. It is okay to talk to your children about the tragedy and ask their feelings about it. But, there is no need to dwell on it or bombard them with news reports or conversations about it.
Third, meet them where they are at. When you are spending time with your children, check in with them periodically. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them what they have seen or heard. Let them know they can ask you any question. Limit the amount of details you share, focusing on the details they express to you.
The truth is that building resiliency is a process, not a given, in children. Central to a resilient child is at least one stable and committed parent, caregiver, or other adult. Children need our help to feel safe after a public tragedy. Think about the children you have in your life and ask yourself, “What am I doing to help them feel safe and be resilient?”
“Violence Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 June 2016, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper No. 13. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
About the Authors
Andy McNiel, MA & Pamela Gabbay, EdD, FT are the authors of Understanding and Supporting Bereaved Children: A Practical Guide for Professionals by Springer Publishing, New York, NY.